The School of Adversity: The Sixth Form Thereof

When Zachariah came to himself he was in a large, long, whitewashed room, with twenty beds or more in it. A woman in a greyish check dress was standing near him.

“Where am I?” he said.

“Where are yer?” she said; “why, in the workus infirmary, to be sure, with me a-looking after yer. Where would yer be?”

Zachariah relapsed and was still. The next time he opened his eyes the woman had left him. It was true he was in the workhouse, and a workhouse then was not what it is now. Who can possibly describe what it was? Who can possibly convey to anybody who has not known what it was by actual imprisonment in it any adequate sense of its gloom; of the utter, callous, brutal indifference of the so-called nurses; of the neglect of the poor patients by those who were paid to attend to them; of the absence of even common decency; of the desperate persistent attempts made by everybody concerned to impress upon the wretched mortals who were brought there that they were chargeable to the parish and put there for form’s sake, prior to being shovelled into a hole in the adjoining churchyard? The infirmary nurses were taken from the other side of the building⁠—sometimes for very strange reasons. The master appointed them, and was not bound to account to anybody for his preferences. One woman had given him much trouble. She was a stout, lazy brute, who had no business in the House, and who went in and out just as she liked. One day something displeased her, and she attacked him with such fury and suddenness that he would have been a dead man in a few minutes if she had not been pulled off. But he dared not report her. She knew too much about him, and she was moved a few days afterwards to look after the sick. She it was who spoke to Zachariah. She, however, was not by any means the worst. Worse than her were the old, degraded, sodden, gin-drinking hags, who had all their lives breathed pauper air and pauper contamination; women with not one single vestige of their Maker’s hand left upon them, and incapable, even under the greatest provocation, of any human emotion; who would see a dying mother call upon Christ, or cry for her husband and children, and would swear at her and try to smother her into silence. As for the doctor, he was hired at the lowest possible rate, and was allowed a certain sum for drugs. It was utterly insufficient to provide anything except the very commonest physic; and what could he do in the midst of such a system, even if he had been inclined to do anything? He accordingly did next to nothing; walked through the wards, and left his patients pretty much to Providence. They were robbed even of their food. They were not much to be pitied for being robbed of the stimulants, for every drop, including the “port wine,” was obtained by the directors from those of their number or from their friends who were in the trade, and it was mostly poisonous. Death is always terrible⁠—terrible on the battlefield; terrible in a sinking ship; terrible to the exile⁠—but the present writer, who has seen Death in the “House” of years gone by, cannot imagine that he can ever be so distinctively the King of Terrors as he was there. The thought that thousands and thousands of human beings, some of them tenderhearted, have had to face him there is more horrifying than the thought of French soldiers freezing in their blood on the Borodino, or of Inquisitional tortures. It is one of those thoughts which ought not to be thought⁠—a thought to be suppressed, for it leads to atheism, or even something worse than mere denial of a God. Thank Heaven that the present generation of the poor has been relieved at least of one argument in favour of the creed that the world is governed by the Devil! Thank Heaven that the modern hospital, with its sisters gently nurtured, devoted to their duty with that pious earnestness which is a true religion, has supplied some evidence of a Theocracy.

Zachariah looked round again. There was an old male attendant near him. He had on a brown rough coat with brass buttons, and shoes which were much too big for him. They were supplied in sizes, and never fitted. The old men always took those that were too large. They had as their place of exercise a paved courtyard surrounded by high brick walls, and they all collected on the sunny side, and walked up and down there, making a clapping noise with their feet as the shoes slipped off their heels. This sound was characteristic of the whole building. It was to be heard everywhere.

“You’ve been very bad,” said the old man, “but you’ll get better now; it a’nt many as get better here.”

He was a poor-looking, half-fed creature, with a cadaverous face. He had the special, workhouse, bloodless aspect⁠—just as if he had lived on nothing stronger than gruel and had never smelt fresh air. The air, by the way, of those wards was something peculiar. It had no distinctive odour⁠—that is to say, no odour which was specially this or that; but it had one that bore the same relation to ordinary odours which well-ground London mud bears to ordinary colours. The old man’s face, too, had nothing distinctive in it. The only thing certainly predicable of him was, that nothing could be predicated of him. He was neither selfish nor generous; neither a liar nor truthful; neither believed anything, nor disbelieved anything; was neither good nor bad; had no hope hereafter, nor any doubt.

“Who are you?” said Zachariah.

“Well, that ain’t easy to say. I does odd jobs here as the nurses don’t do, and I gets a little extra ration.”

“How long have I been here?”

“About a fortnight.”

Zachariah was too weak to say anything more, and fell asleep again. Next day he was better, and he then thought of his wife; he thought of Caillaud, the Major, and Pauline; but he had no power to reflect connectedly. He was in that miserable condition in which objects present themselves in a tumbling crowd, one following the other with inconceivable rapidity, the brain possessing no power to disentangle the chaos. He could not detach the condition of his wife, for example, and determine what ought to be done; he could not even bring himself to decide if it would be best to let her know where he was. No sooner did he try to turn his attention to her, even for a moment, than the Major came before him, and then his other friends, and then the workhouse and the dread of death there. Mercifully he went to sleep again, and after another long night’s rest he was much stronger. He was able now⁠—first sign of restored power⁠—to settle that he ought before everything to communicate with Mrs. Carter, and he inquired of the old man if he could write.

“Oh, yes, I can write,” said he, and something like a gleam of light passed over his countenance at being asked to practise an art almost forgotten in those walls.

A letter was accordingly written to Mrs. Carter, at her sister’s address, telling her briefly what had happened, but that she was not to be alarmed, as the writer was rapidly recovering. He was able to sign his name; but when the letter was finished, he reflected that he had not got a coin in his pocket with which to pay the postage. One of the institutions of the workhouse was, however, a kind of pawnshop kept by one of the under-masters, as they were called, and Zachariah got a shilling advanced on a pocketknife. The letter, therefore, was duly despatched, and he gave his secretary a penny for his trouble. This led to a little further intimacy, and Zachariah asked him how he came there.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I was born in the country, and when I was fourteen, my father apprenticed me to the watchmaking. He was well off⁠—my father was⁠—and when I was out of my time he set me up in business in Liverpool. It was a business as had been established some time⁠—a fairish business it was. But when I came to Liverpool I felt dull.”

“What do you mean by dull? Stupid?”

“No, not exactly that. You know what dull means, don’t you?⁠—low-spirited like⁠—got nothing to talk about. Well, I can’t tell how it come about, but I was always dull, and have been so ever since. I got married soon after I was settled. My wife was a good sort of woman, but she wasn’t cheerful, and she wasn’t very strong. Somehow the business fell off. Customers as used to come didn’t come, and I got no new ones. I did my work pretty well; but still, for all that, things went down and down by degrees. I never could make out why, except that people liked to be talked to, and I had nothing particular to say to any of them when they came in. The shop, too, ought to have been painted more often, and I ought to have had something in the window, but, as I say, I was always dull, and my wife wasn’t strong. At last I was obliged to give up and go to journey-work; but when I got old I couldn’t see, and was put in here.”

“But,” said Zachariah, “is that all? Why, you are nearly seventy years old. You must have something more to tell me.”

“No. I don’t know as I have; that seems about all.”

“But what became of your father? He was well off. What became of his money when he died?”

“I’d had my share.”

“Had you no brothers nor sisters to help you?”

“Yes, I had some.”

“Did they let you come here?”

“Why, you see, as I’ve told you before, I was dull, and my wife wasn’t strong. They never came much to see me. It was my fault; I never had nothing to say to them.”

“Had you no children?”

“Yes, I had a son and daughter.”

“Are they alive now?”

“Yes⁠—both of them; at least I haven’t heard as they are dead.”

“And able to keep themselves?”

“They used to be.”

“And do you mean that your son and daughter let you go to the workhouse?”

The old man was a little disturbed, and for a moment some slight sign of nervous excitement revealed itself in his lustreless eyes.

“I haven’t see anything of ’em for years.”

“Did you quarrel?”

“No, we didn’t quarrel; but they left off visiting us. They both of them married, and went out a good bit, and were gayer than we were. We used to ask them, and then they’d look in sometimes: but never except when they were asked, and always seemed to wish to get away. We never had nothing to show anybody, nor nothing to give anybody; for we didn’t drink and I never smoked. They went away too, both of them, from Liverpool, somewhere towards London.”

“But when you broke down didn’t you inform them?”

“No. I hadn’t heard anything of them for so long. I thought I might as well get into the House. It will do very well.”

“Didn’t you know anybody belonging to your church or chapel?”

“Well, we went to church; but when the business dropped we left off going, for nothing much seemed to come of it, and nobody ever spoke to us.”

“Wouldn’t you like to get out of this place?”

“No⁠—I don’t know as I should now; I shouldn’t know what to do, and it won’t last long.”

“How old are you?”


It puzzled Zachariah that the man’s story of his life was so short⁠—all told in five minutes.

“But did you never have any adventures? Did you never hear about anything, or see anybody worth remembering? Tell me all about yourself. We’ve got nothing to do.”

“I don’t recollect anything particular after I came to Liverpool. Things seemed to go on pretty much in the same way.”

“But you got married, and your wife died?”

“Yes⁠—I got married, and she died.”

“What was your wife’s name?”

“Her name was Jenkins; she was the daughter of the saddler that lived next door.”

“Couldn’t her friends have helped you?”

“After she died they had nothing more to do with me.”

“And you really cannot tell me any more?”

“No⁠—how can I? What more is there to tell? It’s all alike.”

The old pauper was called away, and went shuffling along to the door, leaving Zachariah to his meditations.

Another day passed, and he was lying half asleep when a visitor was announced, and close upon the announcement stood before him⁠—who should it be?⁠—no other than Mrs. Carter, out of breath, radiant, healthy, impetuous.

“God bless the poor dear man!” she burst out; “to think of finding you here, and not to have told us before. But I suppose you couldn’t. Directly as I got your letter off I came, and here I am, you see.”

Her presence was like the southwest wind and sunlight after long northeasterly gloom and frost. Astonishing is that happy power which some people possess which enables them at once to dispel depression and even disease. A woman like Mrs. Carter comes into a house where there is misery and darkness; where the sufferer is possessed by demons; unnameable apprehensions, which thicken his blood and make him cry for death, and they retreat precipitately, as their brethren were fabled to retreat at the sign of the cross. No man who is so blessed as to have a friend with that magnetic force in him need disbelieve in much of what is recorded as miraculous. Zachariah felt as if a draught of good wine had been poured down his throat. But he instantly asked:

“How is my wife?”

“She is all right; but you mustn’t bother about her. You must come out at once. You mustn’t go back to Manchester just yet⁠—not as they’d care much about you now; Nadin’s got plenty of work to do, and wouldn’t concern himself about you⁠—but you aren’t well enough and are better away. Now, look here⁠—I’ll tell you what I’ve been and done. I’ve got a cousin living here in Liverpool, as good a soul as ever lived. I goes to her and tells her you must stay there.”

“But how can I? Just think of the trouble and expense. I don’t know her.”

“Lord a mercy, there you are again⁠—trouble and expense! What trouble will you be? And as for expense, one would think you’d been living like a Lord Mayor to hear you talk. What are we made for if not to help one another?”

“I can’t walk; and shouldn’t I be obliged to get the doctor’s permission?”

“Walk! Of course you can’t. And what did my husband say to me before I started? Says he, ‘You’ll have to get a conveyance to take him.’ ‘Leave me alone for that,’ says I; ‘although right you are.’ And I says to my cousin’s husband, who drives a hackney coach, ‘Just you drop down and carry him home. It won’t be ten minutes out of your time.’ So he’ll be here in about a quarter of an hour. As for the doctor, I understand as much about you as he does, and, doctor or no doctor, you won’t sleep in this bed tonight. I’ll go and tell the head nurse or master, or somebody or the other, that you are off. You just put on your clothes.”

In a short time she returned, found Zachariah dressed, wrapped him round in shawls and rugs, helped him downstairs, put him into the coach, and brought him to her cousin’s. It was a little house, in a long uniform street; but a good deal of pains had been taken with it to make it something special. There were two bedroom windows in front, on the upper storey, and each one had flowers outside. The flowerpots were prevented from falling off the ledge by a latticework wrought in the centre into a little gate⁠—an actual little gate. What purpose it was intended to answer is a mystery; but being there the owner of the flowerpots unfastened it every morning when the sill was dusted, and removed them through it, although lifting them would have been a much simpler operation. There were flowers in the sitting-room downstairs too; but they were inside, as the window was flush with the pavement. This sitting-room was never used except on Sundays. It was about nine feet square, and it had in it a cupboard on either side of the fireplace, a black horsehair sofa alongside the wall on the right-hand side of the door, red curtains, a black horsehair armchair, three other chairs to match, a little round table, two large shells, a framed sampler on the wall representing first the letters of the alphabet, then the figures 1, 2, 3, etc., and, finally, a very blue Jesus talking to a very red woman of Samaria on a very yellow well⁠—underneath, the inscription and date, “Margaret Curtin, 10th March 1785.” The only other decorations⁠—for pictures were dear in those days⁠—were two silhouettes, male, and female, one at each corner of the mantelpiece, and two earthenware dogs which sat eternally looking at one another on the top of one of the cupboards. On the cupboard farthest away from the window was a large Bible with pictures in it and notes, and, strange to say, a copy of Ferguson’s Astronomy and a handsome quarto edition in three volumes of Cook’s First Voyage. Everything was as neat and clean as it could possibly be; but Mr. and Mrs. Hocking had no children, and had saved a little money.

Into this apartment Zachariah was brought. There was a fire burning, though it was not cold, and on the table, covered with a perfectly white cloth, stood a basin of broth, with some toast, a little brandy in a wineglass, a jug of water, and a tumbler. The books, including the Bible, had apparently not been read much, and were probably an heirloom. As Zachariah began to recover strength he read the Ferguson. It was the first time he had ever thought seriously of Astronomy, and it opened a new world to him. His religion had centred all his thoughts upon the earth as the theatre of the history of the universe, and although he knew theoretically that it was but a subordinate planet, he had not realised that it was so. For him, practically, this little globe had been the principal object of the Creator’s attention. Ferguson told him also, to his amazement, that the earth moved in a resisting medium, and that one day it would surely fall into the sun. That day would be the end of the world, and of everything in it. He learned something about the magnitude of the planets and the distances of the fixed stars, and noted that his author, pious as he is, cannot admit that planets or stars were created for the sake of man. He dwelt upon these facts, more especially upon the first till the ground seemed to disappear under his feet, and he fell into that strange condition in which people in earthquake countries are said to be when their houses begin to tremble. We may laugh, and call him a fool to be disturbed by a forecast of what is not going to happen for millions of years; but he was not a fool. He was one of those unhappy creatures whom an idea has power to shake, and almost to overmaster. Ferguson was a Christian, and the thought of the destruction of our present dwelling-place, with every particle of life on it, did not trouble him. He had his refuge in Revelation. Zachariah too was a Christian, but the muscles of his Christianity were⁠—now at any rate, whatever they may once have been⁠—not firm enough to strangle this new terror. His supernatural heaven had receded into shadow; he was giddy, and did not know where he was. He did not feel to their full extent the tremendous consequences of this new doctrine, and the shock which it has given to so much philosophy and so many theories, but he felt quite enough, and wished he had never opened the volume. There are many truths, no doubt, which we are not robust enough to bear. In the main it is correct that the only way to conquer is boldly to face every fact, however horrible it may seem to be, and think, and think, till we pass it and come to a higher fact; but often we are too weak, and perish in the attempt. As we lie prostrate, we curse the day on which our eyes were opened, and we cry in despair that it would have been better for us to have been born oxen or swine than men. It is an experience, I suppose, not new that in certain diseased conditions some single fear may fasten on the wretched victim so that he is almost beside himself. He is unaware that this fear in itself is of no importance, for it is nothing but an index of ill-health, which might find expression in a hundred other ways. He is unconscious of the ill-health except through his fancy, and regards it as an intellectual result. It is an affliction worse ten thousand times than any direct physical pain which ends in pain. Zachariah could not but admit that he was still physically weak; he had every reason, therefore, for supposing that his mental agony was connected with his sickness, but he could not bring himself to believe that it was so, and he wrestled with his nightmares and argued with them as though they were mere logical inferences. However, he began to get better, and forthwith other matters occupied his mind. His difficulty was not fairly slain, pierced through the midst by some heaven-directed arrow, but it was evaded and forgotten. Health, sweet blood, unimpeded action of the heart, are the divine narcotics which put to sleep these enemies to our peace and enable us to pass happily through life. Without these blessings a man need not stir three steps without finding a foe able to give him his death-stroke.

Zachariah longed to see his wife again; but he could not bring her to Liverpool until he had some work to do. At last the day came when he was able to say that he was once more earning his living, and one evening when he reached home she was there too. Mrs. Carter had herself brought her to Liverpool, but had gone back again to Manchester at once, as she could not stay the night. When he first set eyes on his wife he was astonished at the change in her. She was whiter, if possible, than ever, thin in the face, dark-ringed about the eyes, and very weak. But otherwise she was what she had always been. The hair was just as smooth, everything about her just as spotlessly clean and unruffled, and she sat as she always did, rather upright and straight, as if she preferred the discomfort of a somewhat rigid position to the greater discomfort of disarranging her gown.

Zachariah had much to say. During the whole of the four hours before bedtime he did not once feel that drying-up of conversation which used to be so painful to him. It is true she herself said little or nothing, but that was of no moment. She was strengthless, and he did not expect her to talk. So long as he could speak he was happy. The next morning came, and with it came Hope, as it usually came to him in the morning, and he kissed her with passionate fervour as he went out, rejoicing to think that, although she was so feeble, she was recovering; that he could once more look forward as in earlier days, to the evening, and forgetting every cloud which had ever come between them. Alas, when the night of that very day came he found his little store exhausted, and he and the companion of his life sat together for a quarter of an hour or more without speaking a word. He proposed reading a book, and took up the Ferguson, thinking he could extract from it something which might interest her; but she was so irresponsive, and evidently cared so little for it, that he ceased. It was but eight o’clock, and how to fill up the time he did not know. At last he said he would just take a turn outside and look at the weather. He went out and stood under the stars of which he had been reading. The meeting, after such a separation, was scarcely twenty-four hours old, and yet he felt once more the old weariness and the old inability to profit by her society or care for it. He wished, or half wished, that there might have existed such differences between them that they could have totally disregarded or even hated one another. The futility, however, of any raving was soon perfectly clear to him. He might as well have strained at a chain which held him fast by the leg, and he therefore strove to quiet himself. He came back, after being absent longer than he intended and found she was upstairs. He sat down and meditated again, but came to no conclusion, for no conclusion was possible. The next evening, after they had sat dumb for some moments, he said, “My dear; you don’t seem well.”

“I am not well, as you know. You yourself don’t seem well.”

He felt suddenly as if he would have liked to throw himself on his knees before her, and to have it all out with her; to say to her all he had said to himself; to expose all his misery to her; to try to find out whether she still loved him; to break or thaw the shell of ice which seemed to have frozen round her. But he could not do it. He was on the point of doing it, when he looked at her face, and there was something in it which stopped him. No such confidence was possible, and he went back into himself again.

“Shall I read to you?”

“Yes, if you like.”

“What shall I read?”

“I don’t care; anything you please.”

“Shall it be Cook’s Voyages?”

“I have just said I really do not care.”

He took down the Cook’s Voyages; but after about ten minutes he could not go on and he put it back in its place.

“Caillaud’s trial is to take place next week,” he observed after a long pause.

“Horrible man!” she exclaimed, with a sudden increase of energy. “I understand that it was in defending him Major Maitland lost his life.”

“My dear, you are quite wrong. He was defending Major Maitland, and shot the soldier who killed him.”

“Quite wrong, am I? Of course I am quite wrong!”

“I was at headquarters, you remember.”

“Yes, you were; but you were not near Major Maitland.”

Zachariah raised his eyes; he thought he detected, he was sure he detected, in the tone of this sentence a distinct sneer.

“I was not with Major Maitland; my duties called me elsewhere; but I am more likely to know what happened than any gossiping outsider.”

“I don’t believe in your foreign infidels.”

My foreign infidels! You have no right to call them my infidels, if you mean that, I am one. But let me tell you again you are mistaken. Besides, supposing you are right, I don’t see why he should be a horrible man. He will probably be executed for what he did.”

“It was he and that daughter of his who dragged you and the Major into all this trouble.”

“On the contrary, Caillaud, as well as myself and the Major, did all we could to prevent the march. You must admit I understand what I am talking about. I was at every meeting.”

“As usual, nothing I say is right. It was to be expected that you would take the part of the Caillauds.”

Zachariah did not reply. It was suppertime; the chapter from the Bible was duly read, the prayer duly prayed, and husband and wife afterwards once more, each in turn, silently at the bedside, with more or less of sincerity or pathos, sought Him who was the Maker of both. It struck Zachariah during his devotions⁠—a rather unwelcome interruption⁠—that his wife as well as himself was in close communication with the Almighty.